When taking a selfie, most of us want to create an image that shows everyone how perfect our life is and how amazing we look right now. That puts us in good company with artists of the past hundred years, says Brandon Fortune, curator of the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibit, “Eye to I: Self-Portraits From 1900 to Today.” “These artists are all creating their own personas and presenting their own public face to the world,” she says. Many of the 78 works in the exhibit do go beyond the superficial, though. “Some artists use themselves as cheap models, to experiment with composition or work out problems; others use portraiture as a form of activism, to make a particular point,” Fortune says. Whatever the case, a critical viewer should contemplate what each artist is trying to convey, says Fortune, who singled out a few highlights of the show.
‘Self-Portrait With Rita,’ Thomas Hart Benton (circa 1924)
Muralist Thomas Hart Benton casts himself in the role of a Hollywood heartthrob in this oil painting, Fortune says. That’s not surprising for an artist who got his start painting backdrops for silent films. His cinematic style is evident in the golden glow he’s given himself and his young wife in this Martha’s Vineyard scene. Around the time Benton created this painting, he saw “The Thief of Baghdad,” and the movie’s bare-chested leading man “might have influenced his pose,” Fortune says.
‘Copper Self-Portrait With Dog,’ Susan Hauptman (2001)
In this pastel drawing, Susan Hauptman’s frilly, hyper-feminine blouse and skirt contrast with her otherwise androgynous appearance, Fortune says. Hauptman draws realistic ruffles, but then abandons her knowledge of shading and perspective with her feet, which are done in a rough, folk-art style. “She is contrasting different things within herself, leaving us with a complicated self-image,” Fortune says.
‘Super Buddahead,’ Roger Shimomura (2012)
Japanese-American artist Roger Shimomura subverts stereotypes by placing his own head on Superman’s body, Fortune says. “The artist puts himself in a role that would be typically given to an elite white man,” she says. The fact that Shimomura’s head doesn’t quite match the style or color palette of the rest of the picture “helps us to see that he is trying on a role and not fully taking it on,” she says.
‘The Silver Goblet,’ Lucy May Stanton (1912)
Lucy May Stanton painted this tiny, 5-inch-tall watercolor of herself on ivory — a bravura showcase of her exquisite technique, Fortune says. “It’s showing what she can do with the medium,” she says. “She had mastered a technique that was wet-on-wet. She would actually tilt the ivory so the watercolor would flow, and she controlled it precisely.” Stanton also painted herself looking directly at the viewer, which makes the portrait a “forthright image of a woman for the time,” Fortune says.
‘MW His Self,’ Martin Wong (1972)
Though he later went on to be an acclaimed painter, Martin Wong supported himself in the late 1960s and early ’70s by drawing portraits of people on the street and charging them less than $10 per sketch. “He called himself the human Instamatic,” Fortune says. Here, he portrays himself with dashed-off brilliance. “It shows him looking very bored and sophisticated and also really strong,” Fortune says. “It’s a very assertive drawing. He signed it in big script at the bottom.”
National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets NW; through Aug. 18, free.